Saturday, July 07, 2007

La Vie en Rose, or, Women in Pain

You may wonder to yourself: who could possibly have had a sadder life than Frida Kahlo? Well, I just saw the biopic La Vie en Rose and I'm pretty sure Edith Piaf can give Frida a run for her poverty.

I was only introduced to the work of Frida Kahlo about ten years ago. Kahlo's paintings are a dreamy mixture of physical and emotional pain, many of them surreal self-portraits, and they exemplify that peculiar manner in which human sadness can be both captivating and beautiful. Very much like Edith Piaf's songs. Both women's lives were unbelievably tragic-- so much so that if you didn't know the stories were true, they would seem tastelessly overwrought-- and they both died quite young (age 47). Both were unapologetic drunks, one of many self-destructive chracteristics they share, and both became cultural icons of a sort, though never really enjoying the kind of satisfaction one might presume comes with that.

It's hard not to think that the popular fascination with these two women's art has more than a little schadenfreude about it. But, then again, so does Greek tragedy, I suppose. Nevertheless, Piaf and Kahlo are archetypes of women in pain: emotionally raw, stoically romantic, simulataneously optimistic and fatalistic, passive-aggressive and vulnerable. In general, I'm not one to overemphasize gender-specific differences (much to the dismay of my bona fide feminist friends!), but there is something unique about these women's pain that I am not sure one finds in the lives, however tragic, of male artists. They fought losing battles their whole lives, and Piaf still sings:

Jamais rien ni personne
M'empêchera d'aimer...
J'en ai le droit d'aimer
J'en ai le droit...
A la face des hommes,
Au mépris de leurs lois,
Jamais rien ni personne
M'empêchera d'aimer...
De t'aimer...
D'être aimée...
D'être aimée...

(from "Le Droit D'Aimer", 1962)

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